Populated by characters who often go unseen, propelled by journeys whose purpose is withheld or entirely unexplained, Abbas Kiarostami’s movies engage the viewer’s imagination like no others—the Iranian director has coined the phrase “half-made film” to describe his modus operandi. With Ten (currently at Film Forum), shot with nothing more than a DV camera affixed to a car’s dashboard, Kiarostami strips his methods down to their barest essentials. “For me, the concept has changed to the ‘non-made film,’ ” he says. “The filmmaker must make the least intervention possible. You dare, you argue, you coach, but you don’t interfere.”
Originally conceived as a dialogue between a psychoanalyst and her patient, the new film unfolds as a series of 10 auto-bound conversations: A woman shuttles her articulate but cruel and bullying son around, and also gives rides to a giggly prostitute, a devout elderly woman, and a heartbroken friend. (The latter’s final scene is the most bittersweet—and literally revelatory—cinema epiphany you’re likely to experience this year.) The lengthy, pensive automobile ride is a Kiarostami trademark, and Ten is all driving, all the time. “The car is interesting to me because it’s an in-between space,” he says. “It’s only somewhat private and the conversation is only somewhat a quote-unquote ‘dialogue,’ because you don’t talk face to face.”
Kiarostami should have come face to face with his NYC fans last year, when Ten screened in the New York Film Festival, but Washington declined to expedite the visa request of this frequent, Palme d’Or-winning visitor from the axis of evil. “I really appreciated the response in America,” which included a critical op-ed piece in The New York Times. “When the visa was refused, I didn’t think about it in terms of a major plot against this part of the world,” he recalls. “Now I think of it as just another small episode in this massive plan that the American government has had all along. But the reaction around the world to Bush’s warmongering is really heartwarming,” he added, speaking two days after the global protest against war in Iraq.
Puzzlingly, the director doesn’t consider politics part of Ten‘s equation, though every scene polishes a facet of the myriad restrictions on Iranian women. “I don’t think that Ten is especially about the women’s situation in Iran,” Kiarostami insists. “It’s about existential problems that affect the relationships between women and men in any country.”
Rakhshan Bani-Etemad puts it another way: “In any country where women aren’t free, no one is free.” In her first U.S. release, Under the Skin of the City (opening this Friday), a working-class matriarch struggles to keep her family’s heads above water while her eldest son embarks on increasingly desperate moneymaking schemes. Set during the 1998 parliamentary elections, Under the Skin begins and ends with scenes of female voters enduring inept TV interviewers. “I wanted to show that since Iranian television is run by one organization representing one political point of view, its version of society is limited and clichéd,” says Bani-Etemad. “This is why television ads for this film were refused. On the eve of the film’s release, we decided to tag all the billboards advertising the film in Tehran: ‘Ask yourself: Why is it there are no ads for this film on television?’ ” The gambit paid off: Under the Skin was the highest-grossing homegrown movie at the Iranian box office in 2001.
The veteran director has since completed Our Times, a documentary about the 2001 elections: The first part focuses on young novice voters, and the second follows a 25-year-old single mother who’s evicted from her home while she’s, of all things, running for president—one of 48 female candidates for the office that year. “The difficulties for women in Iran are cultural, legal, and economic. But in facing these, the women haven’t become weak or impotent,” Bani-Etemad says. “If anything, the women have developed a resilience, their own sense of empowerment.”
J. Hoberman’s review of Ten
Michael Atkinson’s review of Under the Skin of the City